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Disabling Characters

Representations of Disability in Young Adult Literature


Patricia A. Dunn

Disabling Characters provides detailed analyses of selected young adult (YA) novels and short stories. It looks at the relative agency of the disabled character, the behavior of the other characters, the environment in which the character must live, the assumptions that seem to be underlying certain scenes, and the extent to which the book challenges or perpetuates an unsatisfactory status quo. Class discussions about disability-themed literature, however well intentioned, have the potential to reinforce harmful myths or stereotypes about disability. In contrast, discussions informed by a critical disability studies perspective can help readers develop more sophisticated views of disability and contribute to a more just and inclusive society. The book examines discussion questions, lesson plans, study guides, and other supplemental materials aimed at students studying these texts, and it suggests more critical questions to pose about these texts and the positive and/or negative work they do, perhaps subliminally, in our culture. This book is a much-needed addition to college classes in YA literature, literary analysis, methods of teaching literature, disability studies, cultural studies, contemporary criticism, special education, and adolescent literacy.
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Why write a book examining representations of disability in young adult (YA) literature? To answer that question, I start with the premise that the status quo is not acceptable. All sorts of barriers prevent people from living their lives to the fullest, including how forces in society make them feel about themselves. Many of these forces are hidden from the very people (including myself) who participate, perhaps obliviously, in maintaining these forces: harmful assumptions about race, class, gender, age, income level, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and disability. While assumptions about all these groups should be named and challenged, the last one listed—disability—is perhaps the one least likely to be examined from a critical perspective, at least regarding YA literature. Many barriers contributing to disability are material or attitudinal; either way, they are built. They are constructed. And whatever is constructed can be named, mitigated, or removed.

Fiction can affect the way real people are treated. It can open readers’ minds to entrenched discriminatory attitudes, or it can be complicit with those attitudes, making them worse. The “disabling characters” in the title of this book has a double meaning. It refers to two types of characters who have the power to affect beliefs: one for good and one for ill: ← 1 | 2 →

1) Some characters are “disabling” in a good way because they challenge or “disable” myths about disability, and what happens to those characters can help draw attention to constructed barriers to real...

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